Dimensions of design/Against ahistoricity

From Responsive Environments: A Manual for Designers (Bentley, Alcock et al., 1985):

How does design affect choice?
The design of a place affects the choices people can make, at many levels:
– it affects where people can go and where they cannot: the quality we shall call permeability.
– it affects the range of uses available to people: the quality we shall call variety.
– it affects how easily people can understand what opportunities it offers: the quality we shall call legibility.
– it affects the degree to which people can use a given place for different purposes: the quality we shall call robustness.
– it affects whether the detailed appearance of the place makes people aware of the choices available: the quality we shall call visual appropriateness.
– it affects people’s choice of sensory experiences: the quality we shall call richness.
– it affects the extent to which people can put their own stamp on a place: we shall call this personalization.

Worth reiterating now, for a number of reasons:

Firstly, much like Dieter Rams’s ten principles, as a list of design desiderata I wouldn’t change a word. (Well, OK, maybe I’d fold “visual appropriateness” into “legibility,” but you get my point.) A designer who managed to internalize the values latent in these propositions wouldn’t likely go too far wrong.

Secondly, it won’t have escaped you that the contemporary experience of each and every single one of these dimensions is conditioned by the presence of a networked informatics, and that an urban systems designer intent on establishing best practices for this novel situation could profitably unpack just how this might work out in actuality. These 144 words strike me as nothing other than a map of the territory a professional practice might successfully traverse for the next decade or so.

Thirdly, and here I begin to warm to the real subject of this evening’s post: though the details will of course differ, almost all of these ideas are equally useful in thinking about the design of interactions, interfaces and user experiences.

The ahistoricity of interaction design – the notion, implicitly held or otherwise, that rich interactivity is an entirely new topic in design for human experience, perhaps with the Doug Engelbart demo as Year Zero – has always driven me nuts. When even an old-school HCI stalwart like Don Norman fails to deliver useful insight, perhaps it’s time to start looking further afield for inspiration.

Let’s face it: brighter and more sensitive people than us have been thinking about issues like public versus private realms, or which elements of a system are hard to reconfigure and which more open to user specification, for many hundreds of years. Medieval Islamic urbanism, for example, had some notions about how to demarcate transitional spaces between public and fully private that might still usefully inform the design of digital applications and services. By contrast, the level of sophistication with which those of us engaged in such design generally handle these issues is risible (and here I’m pointing a finger at just about the entire UX “community” and the technology industry that supports it).

A bookshelf that runs no deeper than John Maeda, in other words, isn’t going to get you very far, or help you in the true crunch, and nothing makes me sadder than coming across someone engaged in the design of user experiences whose blogroll or Twitter follow list extends no further than the usual UX names. My own guilty secret is that I don’t follow those names, pay any attention to the various sites and journals people like me are supposed to read, or attend the community’s events, and (to some reasonably approximate value of “never”) never really have. I suppose it’s always possible that I’d be a more accomplished practitioner if I did and had, but my feeling is that there are better and deeper sources of insight available if you dig a little in the history of adjacent design disciplines.

You can learn to do a decent card sort (excuse me: “content affinity analysis”) in ten minutes, and work competently with Arduino in a good solid month of effort, but if you’re genuinely concerned with improving the quality of interactive experience, I believe you owe it both to yourself and to the people downstream from you who’ll be using the things you make to gain a richer acquaintance with the thought of other, older design traditions. (You can find some of my own favorite picks from the fields of architecture and urbanism here.)

Trust me, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for some notional superior acuity. In point of fact, my interest in this broader design literature has nothing at all to do with acuity, but rather with my lifelong effort to manage a notoriously short attention span and find something to read that doesn’t make my eyes glaze over. But something feels wrong to me – impoverished, even hermetic – in the contemporary discourse of interaction and user-experience design, even in recently-developed interaction design curricula like that set up by my good friends at SVA. There’s so much for an interaction designer to glean from the history of late-twentieth-century architecture alone, even (or especially) in the failed, overweening and faintly or not-so-faintly embarrassing parts, and it feels like this legacy is being bypassed in favor of strictly tactical and local concerns.

Of course, you could take just as much away from a concerted immersion in the history of film, or civil engineering, or music; it just so happens that architecture is the thing that grabs me and will not let go. The broader point I’m trying to argue is that, as an interaction designer, your thinking about touchscreens, object models, APIs or task flows will be perceptibly improved by even a slight acquaintance with other, non-digital modes of design for human experience.

It’s not like time began with the Unix epoch, either. In fact, it’s precisely the idea that throughout recorded history, other people charged with the task of design have faced schematically similar problems, and articulated beautiful, valuable, lasting and resonant ways to address them (for there are no true solutions) that I find most energizing. I can tell you that whenever I do get to spend some time with a book like Responsive Environments, I come away enthused, humbled, enriched and inspired, where I think you’d be hard-pressed to say the same of the extant UX literature. And as for the struggles we face in daily working life, it just might be that a challenge seemingly cut from the fabric of this moment alone can yield to an insight hauled up from decades, even centuries, away.

13 responses to “Dimensions of design/Against ahistoricity”

  1. JM says :

    I have to agree. As a neophyte trying to read and learn as much as possible at the field it has always been strange to run across the comment every now and then about how ‘new’ the field is when the people throughout human civilization have had to deal with the problems of interaction b/w humans and their tools and environments. The nomenclature of the digital realm is that of the physical imprinted into this environment (our desktops and folders, etc) so why wouldn’t there be some other relics of the past world, of past behavior, existent here as well?

    Thanks again for helping push the thinking forward. I’m from a broad, mostly non-technical background that fell into reading about this stuff from an enjoyment of architecture and urbanism and its always nice to read what you, or Dan Lockton, or Varnelis have to say, usually blowing my mind and starting a hard scrabble for more information. No pay in it for me yet though but it at least pays off intellectually.

  2. AG says :

    My pleasure!

    The truth is that I write what I do because I simply can’t help it, and would continue to do so even if not so much as a single soul ever stumbled across the things I’d written. The notion that anyone gets anything at all out of the words I lay down here is super-flattering (and kind of bracing).

  3. M. Mudassir Azeemi says :

    Nicely put, but don’t know too much about the Interaction Design. Still learning and struggling to know more about it.

    Thanks for clarifying it.

    Mudassir Azeemi
    San Francisco Bay Area

  4. Wolf Speed'oh!! says :

    IxD/UX/UCD/HCD/HCI/ETC as we know them today, are products of what Slavoj Zizek calls “global capitalism with a human face”. If one is satisfied with that, then those are the tools to proceed with.

    If not, looky elsewhere.

    Bourdieu: http://www.newmappings.net/archives/theory/pierre-bourdieu-the-field-of-cultural-production

    There’s no true design for design’s sake, like there’s art for art’s sake. It can never be.

    By default, the position of the post-industrial designer can never be that of an autonomous agent who is free of institutions and their hegemony. And when the designer comes a truly free-thinking actor in the power struggle, s/he becomes an artist.

  5. AG says :

    Agreed 1000%. In fact, my primary beef with IxD/UXD/whatever is not, actually, its ahistoricity but its lack of a coherent politics and obscene coziness with neoliberalism.

    But I’m afraid that has to remain fodder for a different day. I’m being kicked up one side of the street and down the other over this piece already; imagine what the reaction would have been had I gone *there*.

  6. DS says :

    Not a designer myself – but I do agree, based on what I have to use.

    I’d go even further: the perceived ahistoricity of UX design stems precisely from the relative novelty of the technology. It’s a design failure in the sense that it has failed to make the underlying technology transparent (in the Metzinger sense).
    The technological setting and its associated conventions are allowed to determine design choices rather than being a particular toolbox, despite the fact that the conventions themselves were invented via outside inspiration.

  7. Edwin Gardner says :

    for more historical grounding: “The Model and its Architecture” but more on a meta-level of science, philosophy and architecture.


    I don’t know much about UX, I myself am an architect increasingly moving ‘outside’ my field into (design) cognition theory.

  8. Alper Çugun says :

    I’m often disappointed when IxD colleagues dismiss ideas from other fields because they’re either not practically applicable enough or because they’re too far outside their comfort zones to even register. If any profession should have some innate open mindedness, shouldn’t it be the digital designers?

    Being a well rounded practitioner in the field should mean more than being up to snuff on your deliverables. It should mean (and is a good excuse for) reading far and wide and taking to heart lessons from other fields, important among those being architecture, but also games, history and theatre.

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